Do you want to work in international development?

Sep 7, 2014   //   by Nicholas Milton   //   Blog  //  No Comments

practicalactionInternational development charities like Oxfam do great work but when it comes to jobs are they open to people from different work and ethnic backgrounds? My latest article for the Guardian explores why it’s so difficult to get a job with an international development charity.

Bill Gates’ first CV, written in 1974 when he was 18 years old, was recently unearthed by Seattle’s Living Computer Museum. It shows an ambitious young man who wanted to become a “systems analyst or systems programmer” on a salary of $15,000 (£10,000) and stated that he was willing to “work anywhere”. In the subsequent 40 years as the head of Microsoft, Gates became one of the richest men in the world, formed the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000 and then left Microsoft eight years later to dedicate his life to eradicating poverty. Yet, based on his international development experience alone Gates would not get a campaigning job with Oxfam or any other international NGO.

Why is it so difficult to get a job in international development? Many charities now rightly recruit from within the country or region they are operating in, so getting a UK-based job is highly competitive. Consequently many jobs are massively oversubscribed and that makes it a perfect employers’ market. As a result I believe that when it comes to many research, advocacy and campaigning roles, the UK international development sector has become a closed shop to people from unconventional backgrounds. And my evidence is my own career.

I have a degree in environmental studies and over 20 years’ experience of campaigning, including working for Greenpeace and the former Commission for Racial Equality. In 2010 I became a trustee of a small charity and after seeing its wonderful work on HIV prevention in South Africa decided I wanted to work in the development sector. Two years later I began a series of short-term contracts with an international development charity and for the last year I have been trying, without any success, to get a full-time job in international development.

In my opinion there is little difference between campaigning against global poverty and other high-profile causes like the environment or human rights. However, the development sector doesn’t seem to recognise this and as a result it is very hard to break into. I recently applied for a position with a leading international NGO, specifically because the advert said they were looking for people with alternative experience. But due to the volume of applications received (some 300) I was informed that they’d simply rejected anyone with less than 10 years’ experience in the sector. If Bill Gates had gone for the job rather than set up his own foundation, with only six year’s full-time experience, would they have rejected him too?

The sector has also failed to engage with black and minority ethnic (BME) communities in Britain, despite many having strong links with the countries the charities are operating in. This issue was highlighted in a recent government review into skills and leadership in the charity sector conducted by Dame Mary Marsh which concluded it had an “appalling record” when it came to employing British black and minority ethnic staff.

The British Council recognised this issue over a decade ago and instigated a wide-ranging review. It included setting race and gender senior-staff targets and the creation of a UK ethnic minority employee network. Despite encouraging examples like this, too many senior UK roles in major international development charities are still filled with white, middle aged people who are often “development lifers”.

Opening up the jobs sector in the UK to people from different professional backgrounds and races would reach new audiences, help create a new pool of donors and volunteers and bring invaluable skills to international development work, from languages to political intelligence. It would also be the only way Bill Gates or I would ever stand any chance of getting an interview.

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Nicholas Milton

I am a marketing and communication expert with over 20 years experience. Over this time I have campaigned on issues I feel passionately about - conservation, climate change, racial equality, land reform, rural poverty and most recently international development. I am also a successful freelance journalist and have been published in the Guardian, Times, Daily Telegraph and the Independent.

Contact details

Email: nicholasmilton@hotmail.com Telephone: 0044 7880 622059

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